Date: November 11th, 2016
Distance: Sick day
Nothing to report. Just feeling crappy for the second day.
Date: November 10th, 2016
Distance: 4 kilometers
Well, I almost left today. I got all packed up and said goodbye to my hosts. They have been great and I really appreciated their hospitality. I wasn't feeling that well, but I figured it was time to go anyway.
I had only gone a little way down the road when I pulled over and threw up. Nope, nope, nope. When it is this cold out, trying to travel when you are sick is a bad idea. I went back to Ust-Nera and got a hotel room for the night. I would have gone back to Slava's place but I didn't want to get them sick. Oh well, life is full of false starts.
Date: November 9th, 2016
Distance: Rest day
Today was another super bizarre day. I was able to check on my toe, it seems to be doing a little bit better. The toenail is completely black and will probably come off at some point but the blue color seems to be fading. Now it is just the end of the toe that is blue. Still, it isn't a good thing. That doesn't bode well for how the rest of this trip is going to go if I'm already getting severe frostbite.
In the afternoon I stepped out of the house to try and call my folks. Satellite phones are finicky though, they don't work inside. So I was standing outside for about 10 minutes trying to get a signal and in the end I never was able to get it to work. When I stepped inside Alexi, the boy, came up to me with my bear spray. (Okay, it was for dogs but I hoped it would work on bears.) It had been in the bag with my satellite phone and I didn't realize that he was poking around in my stuff. He looked kind of concerned and asked me what it was. I tried to tell him that it was "bad". At that point he looked back at the room he shared with his sisters. I went inside and started gagging. It turns out he had been spraying it around the room without realizing what it was. Oh crap. It was like someone had tear gassed the place. I told Slava what had happened and the family had to evacuate the apartment while we opened some windows. I felt like a really crappy house guest. Slava was more concerned that his son was messing with my stuff and playing with things he didn't understand. In the end it all worked out and Slava was laughing about it.
Date: November 8th, 2016
Distance: Rest day
Since last night was so crazy, today was my time to get a few things sorted out. I got my stuff laid out to dry. My sleeping bag was pretty bad. There was a significant amount of ice in it just from my breath over the last few days.
I was also able to take a shower. This was the first time I had done that since I stayed with the guys at the road camp about a week before and it was one of the strangest showers I have ever had. The first reason was that as soon as I got my socks off I noticed something wrong. This was the first time in days I had taken them off and at some point in there my left big toe had turned blue. That isn't a good color for a toe. I kept trying to look away in case it would go back to normal when I saw it again. Nope. Even poking at it didn't restore any semblance of a normal color. It did tell me that I basically couldn't feel anything in that toe, however. Also not good. Well, I thought if anything could fix it a nice warm shower would. I finished getting undressed and had just gotten in the shower when Slava pulls back the curtain. I was fairly shocked about that, but Slava didn't seem the least concerned. He had an electric shaver in one hand and said something about "pa bitsa", or to shave. The night before he had told me to shave. In Russia, long beards were only for religious fanatics, either orthodox priests or Muslim terrorists. I had said I wanted to trim up the beard, hopefully to keep it from freezing to my mask and I guess he had decided to take me up on that. Odd timing, but whatever. So I stood there, naked, while he trimmed up my beard. With the beard trimmed Slava did give me my privacy again. The shower after that was great. Sadly, it didn't fix my toe. It was still blue. I might stick around for a few days until that starts looking better.
After I was all cleaned up I went to hang out with the family. There are three girls, ages 3 years old to 10. The oldest is a boy, 14. The youngest and oldest girl didn't seem to know what to make of me. The middle girl, however, took an instant liking to me. She wanted to play various games even though I didn't understand quite what she meant all the time. Communication was always a bit of an issue. It was fun, though. I haven't been around kids in a while. Frankly, the games they play are all pretty similar. It made me miss being around my nieces.
The big brother also seemed to be fascinated by me. He had lots of questions and seemed to want to impress me in the way that teenagers try to do. It was great, and such a change of pace from what I was used to.
In the evening I was pretty tired from keeping up with the kids. Their mom looked at me and said something in Russian I didn't quite get. She got her phone out and translated it using some app. The translation was less than perfect. It said: "Are you tired? We can torture the kids for you." I burst out laughing. I think she meant to ask if the kids were torturing me (they weren't). Sadly I was never quite able to explain why it was so funny. Computer translations still have a little work to do.
Date: November 7th, 2016
Distance: 62 kilometers
Song of the Day: On Top of the World - Imagine Dragons
I'm glad I stopped when I did. Shortly after leaving the river the road began to rise again. I guess I should have expected that. I spent the next 20 kilometers slowly cranking up into the mountains. Occasionally the wind would whip up, but for the most part I was protected by the large peaks around me. But the wind and cold had coated the trees with a layer of brilliant white frost and snow. Unlike the last week where it seems like I have been riding through black and white photographs, it now appears that I am looking out on a blank page, a world that is slowly bleaching white and fading away. It is so eerie and dazzling. I kept having to stop and enjoy the place. Well, I had to stop often because of the difficulty of the terrain, but I had something great to look at when I did.
Just before reaching the top I had to stop again. My chain snapped, the second link that has just shattered in the cold. This chain sucks. At -30° F, on top of a mountain, with strong winds blowing around, is not the place you want this to happen. I walked down the mountain for a bit until I found a sheltered place out of the wind to take care of it. Pulling out the bad link didn't take that long, actually, but getting the quick link off to put the chain back on the bike took a while. It usually takes just a few seconds in a nice warm shop or garage. Out here I was struggling with it for 15 minutes.
While I was trying to fix that a car came up and stopped next to me. The guys in the car invited me in to get out of the cold, which I was happy to accept. I wanted to warm up my gloves and get some of the frost out of the inside of my goggles. While there, they plied me with snacks, meat, hot tea, and a little vodka. (Alcohol helps moves heat to your extremities. Normally not a good thing, but I don't usually have a problem keeping my core temperature up, especially not when I'm on the move.) In exchange I told them a bit about my trip, and then they told me about theirs. I guess they were from Magadan and heading out to go hunting. It was nice chatting with other humans for even a short time.
Eventually we both had to go our separate ways. I thanked them and waved goodbye. With my fingers and gloves all warmed up I could finally get that quick link to work and my chain back on, all set to go.
By the time I started down the mountain the sun was already setting. I did what I could to go as fast as possible but the road was steep and icy. I was worried about trying to navigate it in the dark and equally worried that if I went too fast the ice would make me crash. It didn't help that frost soon began to build up inside my goggles again. Going fast down a remote road and not really being able to see through the frost and dim light isn't fun, believe me.
I arrived at the bottom of the valley just as things really started to get dark. With that obstacle out of the way I put on my headlamp and kept going, determined to get to Ust-Nera tonight.
It was a beautiful night to ride, at least. A beautiful half-moon hung in the sky, its reflected light bouncing off the sparkling white snow all around me. Of course, it was at this point that I had to crash. I was trying to avoid an icy spot in the road and my back tire slid out from me. It wasn't so bad, but something was wrong when I started riding again, something potentially seriously wrong. Eventually I figured out what it was. The crash had pushed some snow into my rear brake and froze there. Once I had that chipped away I could ride normally again.
I thought I was in a bit of luck because I found the town of Ust-Nera about 7 kilometers before I thought I would. When I got there, it looked pretty dismal. About half of the buildings were dark and abandoned. It didn't seem like anyone was around. I wanted to find a shop where I could get something to eat but the only one I could see was closed, so I wasn't sure what to do. Eventually I saw a person walking around and rode over to talk with them. I must have looked pretty unusual coming out of the dark like that on a bicycle. The guy I met explained that this was Ust-Nera the village. The town was another 6 kilometers away. Those were some of the slowest kilometers I have ever done. I was exhausted, freezing, and a bit dejected because I just wanted to be inside.
When I did get to Ust-Nera it seemed quite impressive at night. What a sprawling place, far larger than what I thought could be out in this part of the world. I think it might have a larger population than Khandiga, so basically bigger than any town since Yakutsk. I wasn't quite sure where to go, but when in doubt I always try to eat something. No reason to make decisions on an empty stomach. I found a little store and grabbed a few things that I would need. While I was inside one of the locals started talking with me, Slava. He'd seen my bike outside and had lots of questions. He wanted to know where I slept, how I kept warm, what I did about bears. Slava asked if I had a knife. Sure, I told him. When I showed him the pocket knife I carried, he just shook his head. Not good enough. Slava insisted on buying me a much larger knife. Crocodile Dundee style large. He even literally pulled a "that's not a knife" on me, but, you know, in Russian.
Eventually this lead to an invitation to come by and have some tea. When I arrived at Slava's apartment there was a lot going on. His wife was there along with four kids. We had just barely been introduced when more friends started coming over. I guess Slava had just arrived back from his job driving trucks along some of the "zimnicks" or ice roads. It was a bit like being invited to a party. There was tea, also vodka of course, and food. Dried fish, chicken, soup, potatoes, pickles, and salmon eggs. My Russian still isn't that good so I could only get about a quarter of what was being said. It didn't matter. I was having a great time. I just had to laugh at what a crazy day it had been.
Date: November 6th, 2016
Distance: 60 kilometers
Song of the Day: Cold as Ice - Foreigner
After dropping down out of the hills this morning I had another flat day, more long and lonely miles of highway to travel along. By mid-afternoon I had come to the end of this flat spot and started climbing up the next hill. Making these ascents isn't so terrible but it is slow. The temperature doesn't help. I'm not sure if the grease in my bearings is starting to stick or if my legs just don't work as well in low temperatures. Either way, I'm not moving very fast but I am burning a lot of calories.
It was almost dark by the time I had come to the crest. I descended the hill in the fading light and finally found a place to camp along the shores of a frozen river.
I have been finding strange joys these days. Today it made me so happy to figure out I could get my tent up while wearing mittens.
Date: November 5th, 2016
Distance: 52 kilometers
Song of the Day: From Nothing - Wild Ones
After dropping down that first hill the rest of the day was pretty much flat. Just lots of open and lonely roads. I estimate it will take four days to go from Kuba to Ust-Nera and that makes this day the middle of that passage. I'm still feeling that peculiar sense of detachment from the world. There just isn't anything out here, not even other vehicles except for a few that have been abandoned to rust away. The crumbling hulks almost seem to be left as a reminder that this place is unforgiving. I can't help but feel a strange emptiness about this place. It's somewhere forgotten about, like a dream not fully remembered but stuck in your mind, haunting your thoughts like a ghost.
Sorry, too much pseudo-philosophical thought for today.
As the sunlight began to fade the road started to climb steadily. I kept pushing along, hoping to find the top of the pass, but the road kept going up and up. Eventually I found myself surrounded by steep slopes on all sides. Not a really great place to camp. So, instead I put on my headlamp and continued on in the darkness. In the distance I could see the lights of a gold mine on a far hill. It was like a bright spot of humanity in a sea of darkness and cold. I would have stopped but it was actually pretty far away, and the guys in Kuba had warned me that the guards for the gold mine don't appreciate visitors. I went along until I was exhausted and put my tent up in the woods.
Date: November 4th, 2016
Distance: 71 kilometers
Song of the Day: Is Yesterday, Tomorrow, Today? - Stereophonics
I started a bit late because time here is weird. There is a two hour time difference between Yakutsk and Magadan. Technically, places out here should be on the same time as one of those two places but that isn't always the case. Sometimes the people here adopt a time in the middle, which makes sense but can also be very confusing. The problem for me is that there is no standard way of doing things. Like, the road camp I was at a few days ago was on Magadan time because that is where their head office is. For a kafe like the one I stayed at overnight, you have no idea what time they are setting their clocks to. For a guy who already can't tell what day of the week it is, this doesn't help. Not that it matters much. It just meant I had to waste an extra hour of sunlight waiting for the kafe to open. Oh well.
The day itself was tough. I had left the nice flat river valley and was getting back into a section of big hills. Not mountains really, just big hills. I spent the morning climbing over one hill and down the far side. Then I was climbing up and over another hill as the sun began to set.
I made camp near the top of the hill. No sense in trying to push too far into the darkness.
Date: November 3rd, 2016
Distance: 56 kilometers
Song of the Day: Something to Lose - Heatmiser
The guys from the road crew woke up nice and early, then made breakfast out of dinner from the night before. Warm food is a good way to start the day. I thanked the guys for the food and a warm place to stay. Then we all headed out to get back to the highway.
All told, today was actually kind of easy, with no big hills or obstacles. The wind was even pretty calm. It was cold, though. About -30° celcius (-23° fahrenheit) I was told. In general I don't have a problem keeping my body warm, it's my fingers and toes that get cold. I have to balance how much to insulate my core so I don't sweat with how to keep warm blood flowing to my extremities, which is actually not an easy balance to strike. Plus, it changes constantly based on the speed I am going, how hard I am working, what the wind is like, if I am going up or down hill. What a pain.
I arrived in Kyubeme, the next little place on the map, a good deal before dark. The guys from the road crew had told me there was a kafe there. They were right, but there wasn't much else. The kafe was called "Kuba", and had a bizarre tropical theme that I can only assume came from when Cuba was the tropical destination for the Soviet Union. The owners of the kafe also had another little hut next door that served as a "gostinitza" or hotel. Other than that there were just a few run-down buildings and a gas station. There wasn't really even a town there, just a service stop. Not that I'm complaining. I was able to get another night inside and warm, which was fine with me. Plus, the kafe had some decent food. Always a plus.
Date: November 2nd, 2016
Distance: 40 kilometers
Song of the Day:
Today was much slower than I really wanted. After leaving the camp I was still up in the mountains. The road lead down into a narrow valley then across a bridge that the road crew I had stayed with were replacing. The highway then wound around a narrow ravine and up the mountains on the far side. The wind was also coming at me and now making things better. The tight gorge was channeling it all down the valley and making the tough climb an even worse struggle. I stopped to eat for a moment but pushed on before I really finished. The wind was just sucking all the heat right out of me and I needed to get moving before I froze.
It took a while but eventually I reached the top of the pass. One the other side the highway curved down the north slope of the mountains. Normally I love the narrow, winding descents. Here, not so much. Going fast in the freezing temperatures was harsh. Cold air was rushing through gaps around my mask and freezing my nose and face. My hands were like ice. I couldn't feel them very well and was hoping when I tried to use the brakes my fingers would actually do it. I guess this is my life now.
Things got much better after that, though. I had passed through the mountains into an area of rolling hills. The wind even let up a bit. Around lunch time a tractor-trailer truck stopped for the driver to say hello. He invited me into his cab and offered me a warm cup of tea. Both of those sounded great. The driver had a little propane stove set up between the seats to boil water with. He also gave me a sweet roll and a can of tinned beef. Normally cold, congealed beef from a can wouldn't have been that appetizing, but I must have been hungry because I ate the whole thing. After twenty minutes nice and warm in the truck it was time to go again. I thanked the driver for his kindness and went back out to do battle with the cold.
It wasn't long before I came upon another group of Russians who offered me some tea. They were part of another work crew maintaining the road. To help in this they had a big truck with a cabin in the back. It was almost like an RV, with places to sleep and a little kitchen, except this was all locally built. It even had a wood stove for heating. I had a bit of tea with the work crew and even a shot of vodka. Helps with the cold, right? Then it was time for both of us to go back to work. The leader of the crew said they were going to head down 10 kilometers and then stop for the night. I could have a warm place to stay if I could get there. That worked for me.
I went off down the road. The work crew spent their time sweeping off the guard rails on the side of the road, making sure drivers could see the reflectors on them. We sort of leap-frogged along. I would pass them, then the truck would pick up the crew and head past me. It all worked out pretty well. I got to the camp spot just about when the truck pulled in.
I had a fun night in the truck with them. The chief got the little wood stove going. They cooked some food for us to share, plus more tea to drink. After dinner there was more vodka as well while we watched a Russian comedy show from the 90s on a little DVD player. The whole time the truck was just running. It made me a bit nervous at first. Why is the engine still running? Then I thought maybe it was running to keep the lights on and the DVD player working. As we got ready to sleep, and turned things off, no one went out to turn the truck off. It was then I realized I was being an idiot. You don't shut the engine off when it is this cold because it won't start again. What a wild place. I fell asleep to the rumble of that engine.